For almost two years, I lived and worked at Springwater Center, a nonsectarian meditation retreat center in rural northwestern New York founded by Toni Packer.
Springwater was originally a Zen center, but over time the Zen forms, names and ideas were dropped, and by the time I showed up, it no longer thought of itself as a Zen center in any sense of the word. It had gotten much, much barer.
Toni says that she is not a teacher, meaning she is not someone (a personality or a role) to focus on or make something out of or regard as an authority. But she gives talks and meets with people. She is available.
I am currently writing a book based on the journals I kept while at Springwater. What follows are selections from that book-in-progress. The italicized sections are excerpted from Toni’s retreat talks.
The work here is just seeing, listening to the birds and the rain and the internal chatter, the way the mind works.
The wild grasses humming and crackling with crickets, thousands of tiny butterflies fluttering over the flowers, dragonflies basking on the warm rocks, and at night the croaking frogs and tree toads and the lightning bugs. Wind and moonlight and clouds blowing through the sky.
I am trying so hard. My whole being is utterly tensed from head to toe with EFFORT. Trying to do it right. At one point during my first retreat, I think that Toni is walking behind me during a walking period, and spend the entire period watching myself trying to “walk perfectly,” then trying to “just relax” and “not try,” trying so hard either way to “do it right” that it’s a wonder I can even walk, then realizing at the end that it wasn’t even Toni walking behind me. All of it just images in my head, but they run my whole mind-body.
Just to see them is enough. Seeing the performance, the ideas, the conflicting commands, the effort not to perform, the desire to be someone else (someone who isn’t trapped in such ridiculous and painful behavior), the self in the middle of all of this. Just seeing.
Seeing the thoughts and sensations that come up when someone says something I violently disagree with. Seeing how threatened I feel by their opinion, how the anger comes, the urgent need to change the other person, watching all of this, feeling like I’m being asked to perform unilateral disarmament in enemy territory, and then realizing the other person feels exactly the same way, that this is the world situation in microcosm.
You are the book, Toni says. The most important book to read is yourself. If you read that book, you will have read all the others.
I also clean the toilets, vacuum the floors, transcribe tapes. The pages of my once-jammed datebook are blank. Social interactions occur spontaneously, organically. I almost never talk on the telephone. I go for months at a time without ever riding in a car or walking on concrete.
My mind, of course, is always busy spinning other plans: other centers, other teachers, other landscapes, other lifestyles, other ingredients. Where to go next. But somehow I have this feeling that if I could just stay here, no matter what, at least for now, it would be so freeing. (To paraphrase Reb Anderson: enlightenment is when Iowa is empty of Iowa and you can be in Iowa with all the problems of Iowa without wanting to be anyplace else.)
Toni compares this work we’re doing to the aliveness of a baby exploring the world. She doesn’t call it practice because to her that word automatically conveys ideas of effort, self and attainment, something mechanical.
David Steindl-Rast, a Catholic monk, talks about prayer as wholehearted attention, a state of mind that has two components: concentration, which is a narrowing down and focusing in, and wonderment, which is expansive, open and limitless. Whole-hearted attention must paradoxically include both dimensions simultaneously, he says.
Toni seems to be suggesting pure wonderment, without concentration, but actually she seems quite concentrated to me. Perhaps the key lies in the realm of intention. Babies focus or concentrate on what interests or pleases them. As soon as something new appears, their focus will shift. Concentration thus arises naturally in each moment. It is constantly moving, and is not something imposed by thought, some agenda of prescribed behavior. Many meditation practices, on the other hand, are entirely created and sustained by thought, and have at their center the image of a self—a meditator—who is meditating (and getting somewhere spiritually).
The concentration of a baby is organic and alive, not conditioned or rote. It is concentrated alive wonderment. The baby has no sense yet of self-image. And it is to that kind of spontaneous, selfless awareness that Toni seems to be pointing.
She talks of taking her grandson on a walk at twilight in Rochester on a winter evening, and how he sat down in a pool of light in the snow under a streetlamp, just wanting to be there in that light. Was he “practicing” something? she asks.
It’s an amazing process, this work. Intentions and formulas arise so quickly. The observer is nothing more than a construct of memory and conditioning, a little dictator who lives in my head and shouts commands at some imaginary self he is trying to get in shape, commands like: “Come back to the moment!!”, “Listen to the birds!!”, “Pay attention to the breath!”, “Stop fantasizing!!” When Toni rejects the word practice, perhaps what she is rejecting is mistaking this dead observer, which is merely more thought, for living awareness.
Letting go of so many layers of illusion. So many layers of addiction. (And then there will be nothing, we think, but who called it nothing? It is “the green of the pines, the twist of the brambles…the red of the flowers and the white of the snow.” —Ryusui)
Hours of churning thoughts and then something opens and there is just the wind, the buzzing of the flies, the rush of thoughts, the floor underfoot, all at once, in wholeness. Everything relaxes, becomes spacious. I really see that there’s nothing to get, nowhere to go, no one to get there. I don’t need to figure anything out, impress anyone, out-do anyone. There is no “I” anymore, no center.
But then, so quickly comes the urge to capture this moment of awakening: to possess it, label it, define it. And next thing I know I’m thinking again about what question to ask Toni in our next meeting (so I can impress her, solve this riddle of my life, get liberated, be happy and free). Soon my whole mind is tied up in knots again.
—I need to learn to just trust that awareness, I tell Toni.
—What do you mean by trusting? she asks.
I laugh, seeing that what I mean is counting on it to get an imagined “me” to where I want to go in time. It is a departure into thought and image, and it brings pleasant feelings and relief from the thought that awareness is not enough to make me happy, which is a thought that brings unpleasant feelings.
—What can you trust? Toni asks. You don’t know. Don’t trust anything. Watch how thought comes in so quickly.
In this work there is no attempt whatsoever to pass judgment on what is, to cut it off, control it, discipline it, change it. There is simply bare attention. Attention which is gone as soon as it is sought after or named. It comes and goes. There is nothing to do. (But be diligent about doing nothing, Huang Po advises). Endless subtraction. Enormous freedom.
Toni: When this sense of “me” is there with its deep feeling of insufficiency and incompleteness, with its endless searching for perfection and security, when that is there, we can’t see freely. Any thought is incomplete. There is no complete thought. Thought is fragmented. It comes from the past, from past experiences laid down as memories. Thought and memory cannot be complete. The completeness of life is not capturable in thought or image. Thought is trying to do it all the time, but it can’t.
So, the thought of me, if one sees that to be a thought, or at least glimpses it at times to be a thought, is of necessity incomplete. And there is always that feeling of incompleteness as I think about myself, and as I live in thoughts and images, alone and in relationship with others who are conditioned in the same way.
And from this feeling-thought of incompleteness arises wanting and fearing. Wanting completion. Fearing the absence of it. Wanting gratification, fulfillment, meaning, purpose. Wanting and fearing. People who observe this carefully find that not a moment goes by without some wanting, or fearing. Even if there is a moment of fulfillment, there comes immediately the desire for it to continue, for more of it, or the fear that this moment will come to an end. Wanting to keep it, wanting to prolong it. All coming out of this inevitable feeling of incompletion, which lies with the idea of me as a separate entity.
And then the trying. Trying to become complete. The spiritual paths, the exercises, the imposed practices, self-imposed or imposed by a discipline that one takes up, trying to become complete in time, which is thought again. Do you see that? That both incompleteness and completeness, as we suffer from it or strive for it, are thought and idea. And all the trying toward that completion is a movement away from what is actually happening right now in this mind and body and around it, as perceived by this mind and body.
I’m noticing the difference between sitting in the sitting room in the traditional meditation posture and sitting in an armchair or on a bench outside, free to move, to watch clouds and grasses, and it seems that the latter is freer of something, something of that sense of effort that is so much the essence of the problem because it comes from thought (about me) and instantly creates a duality. It is infinitely easier to sit on my cushion Doing Nothing than to sit in an armchair really doing nothing. I sit quite happily on my cushion every day, at least an hour, often more, no problem. But to sit in an armchair actually doing nothing at all, well, I can tolerate that about five minutes a week.
The clouds blow silently across these huge skies full of weather, the snow falls and blows into my face. I inhale snowflakes. The air is cold and sharp. There is ice under my boots, cracking as I walk, layers of frozen leaves, frozen mud, frozen water. Deer at twilight meeting me in the field, like strange masked-gods they stare at me, and I stare back, until finally they leap away, their white tails flashing against the dark woods.
Toni: So there is the wind, the sound of the wind, the brightness of the room, the breathing, the color of the floor, the hands on the thighs, the heart beating. There is saliva gathering in the mouth, and one is swallowing it. What’s so hard about being in touch with what is real, with what is actually there this moment, unspectacular though it may be?
Is this one of our problems? That to be in touch with reality we expect something spectacular or out of the ordinary? And so we fail to be with our feet on the most ordinary of grounds, a soggy path or a wooden floor, a rug.
Last night in the meeting room there was the little lamp and right underneath the lamp was a small plant with the greenest of leaves, sort of tongue-like, unfolding out of this little pot, and a few red flowers, as red as red can be, with some yellow inside. That simple. Can one see it?
And not expect this to do something to one. Just see it. And the breathing at the same time, or a sound of the wind, the ticking of a clock, and this feeling of dis-ease is also there. This entire universe is there, whatever that is. Not the concept of it. But the air, the ground, the sky, the stars at night and the lights of Springwater.
What would happen if the fantasies were gone? I’m left with the twilight sky, these unspectacular hills, people chewing carrots, some sadness, the meaninglessness of the rain. The thoughts are like rain…pitter patter, splash splash, plunk, drop, rush of rain falling, ice rain, icicles…
If thought doesn’t give continuity to feeling, feeling dies very quickly. —Krishnamurti
Of course, if we want it to die quickly we get into trouble.
We can mechanically repeat the ideology of insight to ourselves like an incantation hoping for clarity, telling ourselves “this is just thought” or whatever, but unless the whole of it is seen, including the observer/wanter, then nothing changes. (Krishnamurti: “Any movement on the part of the observer, if he has not realized that the observer is the observed, creates only another series of images and again he is caught in them.”)
How complete, global seeing comes about is a mystery. Any formulation or method we invent will eventually get in our way. It’s as if everything we learn must be instantly left behind.
Spring has come with a great overgrown passion. Abundance and lushness. Thunder crackles in the sky. Everything is moist and green and tiny orange butterflies drink from the wildflowers that fill the fields. Humid, almost tropical. The delicious soft sound of rain, the explosions of thunder, the cries of the birds. At night, the chanting of the frogs, and the fields filled with fireflies, millions of them, blinking on and off like a miraculous magical lightshow.
June retreat over a few hours ago, light rain. I come to my room to be alone with my words, these silent prayer beads along which I feel my way in the darkness. Outside the sky turning a soft pink and then blue.
How was retreat? Every time I got to the edge of enlightenment, a mosquito appeared without fail. Or a deerfly. Once, by the rim of the pond, I got so close (to enlightenment, not to the water), and then I heard it, that little whining sound in my ear.
Wind sweeping the rain-drenched trees. White-tailed deer leaping through the tall grass. The constant dream of Me Somewhere Else Tomorrow finally Happy and Okay, and the seeing of that dream as a dream.
I think of all the boxes we put ourselves and other people into, the endless seemingly-substantial beliefs about who we are.
Ellen Chatwick was telling me about this women’s action at the CIA building she was in, and they all sat down in front of the building to block the entrance, all these women, and Ellen was on the end, and this man with a beard sits down next to her and holds her hand, and she doesn’t know how to tell him it’s a women’s action. Finally she says, “Ahhh…I think this is a women’s action,” and he says, “I don’t know what I am.” So they get arrested together.
I have this idea that we’re all put here in various bizarre costumes: wheelchairs, black skin, white skin, amputations, old age, penises, vaginas, big noses, little noses. Some people get more bizarre costumes than others, but everyone gets one, without exception. And then no one really sees anyone else. We see the costume. We can’t get past it. Some people never even realize they’re at a costume party.
Over time, there is a shift inside me. I notice that I don’t feel wounded or insulted when I hear the word cripple, or when I encounter some backward attitude to homosexuality, or some sexist attitude or behavior. I see it for what it is, but without the sense of personal injury. There is more compassion now for the other person, more openness to them. I can choose my battles more carefully, and fight them with less heat (and thus with less of the exaggeration, defensiveness and hostility that tends to make the other person ever-more locked into a position instead of giving them space to re-examine and change).
The trees have begun to turn and the darkness is coming earlier and earlier. Autumn is in the air. The fireflies are gone, and the glow-worms have come out. They line the sides of the road at night like pulsating stars.
I woke up at dawn to the sound of trees falling. I didn’t know what it was I was hearing at first. But finally I got out of bed and looked out my window. Everything was encased in ice. It was totally silent, except for the sound of trees and branches crashing to the ground. The power was off I realized.
It was an ice storm. I walked up to the pond. Every blade of grass in the field was encased in ice. It was one of the most beautiful and ghostly things I ever saw. The trees were falling over from the weight of the ice.
Our driveway, which is about a mile long, was piled with fallen trees and fallen power lines. We had to chainsaw our way out. We had no power for a week. No heat, no running water, no flushing toilets, no lights. We sit by candlelight around the kitchen table at night and sing old Beatles songs. We navigate the hallways with flashlights.
Felix and I sit in his room talking. It is totally dark. We can’t see each other at all. Outside his window, the night sky is full of bright stars.
Even if you try to control what comes, it cannot be controlled. —Dogen
The mental frescoes, one after another, passing through my head. What I’d really like is to lay in bed, relax completely, sleep and have sex and overeat and be surrounded by people kneeling in adoration. But since I see that never quite materializes the way I want it to, I’ve decided to settle for enlightenment instead.
“That sounds rather…drab!” Toni says, putting her hands on my knees and laughing.
Watching the moon rise in the pond. Couldn’t you be doing this a little bit better?, the mind asks. Couldn’t the colors be a little bit brighter? Is this really clarity? Are you sure you’re doing it right? Shouldn’t it feel better than this? Shouldn’t I be having sex too?
What is all this about clarity? I ask Toni. Who wants it? I feel utterly depressed. Who cares if I can hear the birds cheeping?
So have you stopped looking for it yet? Toni asks.
It’s such a tiny shift in the mind between wanting and enlightenment. Letting go of the dream, having nothing to look forward to anymore. What relief! What immensity! And yet how we dread it!
Can the wanting be there like the heartbeat? Toni asks. Just hear it, feel it. Wanting, wanting, wanting. The pulsation of human psychology. Without getting sucked into the content of it, the particular object(s) we imagine will make us happy.
Wanting to wake up
Wanting to be loved
Wanting to know what to do
Wanting the judging to stop forever
Wanting enlightenment to be a state of feeling good all the time
Wanting world peace and the end of all suffering
Wanting to stop wanting
Bees bump into the window glass. Fireflies blink on and off in the fields. Deerflies snarl in your hair and bite your back. Mosquitoes suck your blood. Bats skim the pond, hunting for food. Deer scatter in the woods, leave scat and hoof prints. The green leaves hide the damage of the ice storm. Winter seems far away and unreal. Everthing is lush and green and hot and overgrown.
I asked Paul if he feels he’s still growing here (since he talks frequently of leaving), and he says that he doesn’t think in terms of growth. All that personal fulfillment and development stuff isn’t relevant, he says, all that matters is kindness. Are we becoming any kinder? The wind was blowing in the trees when he said it, it was dusk, and I felt so touched.
I unfortunately am still pursuing growth.
People pass through and talk of the programs they’re embarked on to become therapists, rolfers, naturopaths, nurses, whatever. And I seem to be embarked on a program to become nobody. At the end of it you have nothing. You are nowhere. You have no future. There is no you. It doesn’t pay at all. “It’s a very difficult program,” Adam jokes, “most people who enroll in it drop out.”
I began to wonder (again) about my dependency on Toni. I went into a meeting during retreat and brought it up. How would I feel if tomorrow Toni turned around and said she was into peyote binges now, that this whole thing had been a huge mistake?
“What’s the whole thing?” Toni asks.
I laughed and laughed and laughed.
Because that’s the problem. I’ve got a HUGE “Whole Thing” in my mind that I’m dragging along, trying to maneuver, alternately fighting with or chasing after. This enormous dead object that talks, and it’s nothing but thought!
“There can’t just be nothing!” I said, laughing (but I was serious). It’s too simple!
(I was quoting P’ei Hsiu in his dialogue with Huang Po:
Q: What is the Way and how must it be followed?
A: What sort of THING do you suppose the Way to be, that you should wish to FOLLOW it?
Q: Should we not seek for anything at all?
A: By conceding this, you would save yourself a lot of mental effort.
Q: But in this way everything would be eliminated. There cannot just be nothing.
A: Who called it nothing? Who told you to eliminate anything? Look at the void in front of your eyes. How can you produce it or eliminate it?)
Toni: The quest for enlightenment feeds into our time sense. I don’t even think in terms of having experiences. Things do happen. But how lethal to stamp a label on it. Then you become somebody. To be alive, really alive, means a flow without resistance, a vulnerable flow, a vulnerable flow of aliveness without resistance. And all of this experience-mongering (wanting enlightenment and so forth) is a form of resistance. In a flow without resistance you don’t have to know how you’re doing. It’s alive. It’s the airplane. The wind. You know, it’s such a relief to realize that we don’t have to be anything.
Toni points toward the most radical do-nothing-at-all that I’ve ever encountered. This does not mean sloth, inertia, never getting out of bed, or unconstrained indulgence in addictive patterns. In fact, all the above would be some-thing, the result of thought and thought-constructed ideas of self. And trying to get rid of thought (or self) is just another thought-process. Hence, the radical task of total no-thingness. This is not some-thing (an idea) to grasp intellectually and believe in or disbelieve. Rather, it must be experienced directly. Otherwise it is meaningless.
My last night at Springwater. The sun has just gone down. My room is packed up, emptied, everything stuffed into my car ready to go. I walk up to the oatfield to say goodbye. It is a dark, stormy evening. Huge black clouds are rolling in from the north, and dark red ones full of blood and winter. A crying animal somewhere in the woods. Wind in my face.
I feel suddenly overwhelmed with tremendous gratitude for these two years here, the precious gift of this time, this earth, these people, this space. The simple love is what’s important, the love I feel with everyone here, so clear in these final days. And the earth, the wind, the unknowable mystery. So much time wasted in obsession and criticism, chatter and ideology, looking for explanations, chasing dreams. My eyes fill with tears, like the clouds in the sky, because there is so much beauty, because so much of it is missed, because I am leaving this place and time, this miracle of being.
Stormy dawn the morning I leave, almost raining, the trees blowing, a deer and her tiny fawn loping through the field, crows playing on the wild wind.
And then the open road.
A truckstop in Pennsylvania. A tuna sandwich in Ohio. The new moon over the highway.
Darkness. Red sky. Smell of manure.